U.S. support for South American military dictatorships was a fact of geopolitical life during the Cold War. The U.S., often covertly through the C.I.A., assisted governments in combating insurgents—guerrillas officials branded as terrorists. Today, the U.S. still favors fascist governments over democratic ones since the former accommodate U.S. business interests while the latter oppose exploitation of their people and resources, setting their priority on the people’s welfare. Written beautifully by Franco Solinas and director Costa-Gavras, Etat de siège is a strong, fascinating film—a better one than Costa-Gavras’s earlier Z (1969)—about a 1970 incident in Uruguay involving the kidnapping, interrogation and killing of a U.S. agent by guerrillas in Montevideo.
Daniel A. Mitrione, rechristened here Philip Michael Santore, was an Indianan police chief who was supposed to be training Uruguayans in “traffic and communications.” In reality, he trained police, especially in the use of torture. “A premature death,” Mitrione reportedly opined, “means a failure by the technician. It’s important to know in advance if we can permit ourselves the luxury of the subject’s death.” One would never guess the air of Mengele about the man from this statement from the Nixon-Kissinger White House upon news of his death: “Mr. Mitrione’s devoted service to the cause of peaceful progress in an orderly world will remain as an example for free men everywhere.”
Well, an example for Bush and Cheney at least. Uruguay became a place of official terror, with wholesale arrests and imprisonments without due process, the “habitual” use of torture, and death squads.
Costa-Gavras’s taut mosaic zigzags among different kinds of scenes, including legislative ones, press conferences, and the interrogations in which Tupamaro guerrillas confront Mitrione/Santore with meticulous evidence of actions he keeps denying.
Yves Montand is magnificent as Mitrione/Santore.
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